Interview with a NatCapper: Allison Bailey
We talked with Allison Bailey, one of NatCap’s research data scientists, to learn about her experience watching GIS technology evolve from baseball hats with antennae on top in the early '90s to today’s smartphones, her love of marine ecosystems, and a cross-country RV trip during the pandemic. Allison has an M.S. in Marine Studies from the University of Delaware and a B.A. in Biology from Carleton College.
Thanks for joining us, Allison. Tell us a bit about what you do at NatCap.
Allison Bailey: I’m a research data scientist with the Seattle team, where I focus on marine and coastal work. Specifically, I’ve been working on a project that uses new data technologies like remote sensing to look at coastal habitats — mangroves, seagrasses, corals, etc. — to try to improve the information we have about them. We use these technologies to add information about habitats that might be related to their health and how well they provide ecosystem services to people. Much of my team’s work is focused in the Caribbean region and my work right now primarily centers on The Bahamas, Mexico, and Belize.
Have you always been focused on marine work? What led you to the field?
Yes, I’ve always been interested in the marine environment, but I didn’t really know you could make a career out of it until I discovered this amazing program at Carleton College, where I went to undergrad. It was a marine biology semester program on San Juan Island in Washington and Catalina Island in California. As soon as I finished, I wanted to come back to the West Coast. SCUBA diving and exploring the marine environment was so exciting and rewarding for me. The next summer, I worked for some researchers at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs, where I got to dive in kelp beds and do intertidal research. It was the dream summer job. After that amazing experience, I knew I wanted to come back here. Right after graduating from college, I got into my VW bus and headed west.
My first “nature” job was working in a warehouse in the Bay Area for a natural products company. Then I worked in a bioassay lab, testing toxic chemicals coming from pulp mills and refineries—it was a “science” job, but definitely not an enjoyable one for me. I was really happy when I came across the opportunity to work for the Department of Natural Resources in Olympia, Washington, where I started doing mapping and fieldwork on the beaches of Puget Sound. That’s what kicked off my interest in GIS work.
At the start of your career in the early '90s, you were able to work with GPS technology when it was brand new. Tell us about that experience and how you’ve watched the technology develop over the past 30 years.
When I started at the Department of Natural Resources, I didn’t know much about maps, I just knew I wanted to work in marine biology. It was 1990 and we were using GPS, which was a very new technology.
My job was to ground-truth remote sensing imagery, to verify that what the aircraft images were showing was accurate. In those early days, the GPS constellation wasn’t complete yet—all the satellites weren’t in the sky. So we’d use this prediction software to find out where to get a signal, and then we had about a four-hour window during low tide when we could actually see what we were looking for in the marine habitat. We had a baseball cap with an antenna stuck to the top with Velcro. We’d put stakes in the ground to designate each site and then stand at each stake for three minutes in order to get enough of a signal.
There were 20-minute windows of GPS access within that four-hour window of low tide, so I’d be running between the stakes, filling out my datasheet and trying to get as many in as I could within the time. These days, when we just look at our little blue dot on our smartphones, that’s about the same level of precision as we were getting with our antenna hats back in 1990.
At the time, I didn’t realize how groundbreaking this work was. I was fresh out of college and it seemed kind of routine, but I look back now and see how new and exciting it was. That job really launched my interest in GIS and remote sensing and it’s where I found a love for maps. I found myself asking so many questions about the scientific process, the technology, everything. I realized I wanted to learn more, so I started looking for grad school programs to study GIS and remote sensing.
Finding a program in the mid-90’s was challenging for this kind of work — I was in a “create your own major” kind of area. I ended up at the University of Delaware, where I was able to explore the east coast marine habitats. But I knew I’d end up back on the West Coast.
You ran your own consulting business for many years before coming to NatCap. What made you want to join us?
When I got back to Washington, I took a job at NOAA Fisheries in Seattle. After a few years there, I started working for a GIS consulting company with no intention of starting my own business. But then, people I had worked with at NOAA and elsewhere started reaching out with opportunities for consultant work. I realized there was a lot of business there, and I had a good understanding of how consulting worked, so I went out on my own. I ran my own business for 14 years.
I enjoyed the work, but I wanted more of a collegial environment. I felt like I was missing opportunities to connect with people and get super excited talking about science.
Also, technology is speeding along so incredibly fast and I wanted to be in a workplace where I could keep up, learning with others who are also exploring the same technology and using it in different ways. I can do plenty of self-learning, but it’s great to be a part of a community of researchers and practitioners. I’m a practitioner, not a researcher. I take existing tools and algorithms and apply them to the problem that I’m interested in.
You've been a scuba diver since college. What’s your favorite place you’ve ever been diving?
I have two favorites. The San Juan Islands are near and dear to my heart. It’s a beautiful place to dive, but it’s also really cold. My first tropical dive trip was to Micronesia, to an island called Kosrae. That trip was phenomenal — I had never been to any place where the water was warm. We stayed in a tiny hotel that was owned by the family and it felt very welcoming. The reef ecosystem was one of the best I’ve ever seen and has spoiled me for almost every dive since.
Outside of work, what have you been doing to keep busy during the pandemic?
Getting out in nature has always been a part of my routine, but early on in the pandemic when all the cars were gone, I went on a lot of exploratory bike rides through the city.
My biggest pandemic survival adventure was an RV trip I took to the East Coast with my spouse. In order to see my parents on the East Coast in a way that was as safe as possible for everyone, we rented an RV and we planned and brought meals for three weeks, so we wouldn’t have to go into stores. On our way out of Seattle, it felt really apocalyptic because the wildfires were making the air full of smoke. As we were careening down I-90 with all our food and equipment for three weeks rattling around in the RV, it was definitely an odd feeling. But the trip was wonderful and I’m really thankful that we were able to visit my parents in a safe way.
What’s your favorite thing about working at NatCap?
The people. Everyone is super smart, engaged, and just good people to work with. Even working remotely during the pandemic, NatCappers are able to find ways to connect and engage with each other. It’s the reason I came and it didn’t disappoint!